I am sat down writing this trying to process the most intense, insane, painful, joyful week of my life. I am unsure how to try and document what happened in the 2013 Marathon des Sables but will start by breaking it down day by day and see how it goes as this might be a useful resource for anyone wishing to give it a crack.
Gatwick - Morocco
We flew out on the Thursday and the sight of all the fellow MDS'ers at the South Terminal of Gatwick confirmed that this pipe dream that I had been obsessing about for nigh on 2 years was definitely happening! I bumped into a few people that I had met over the last few months at various races including some of my future tent mates for the week, Sally, Gordon and Tom.
The flight was pretty uneventful and we arrived in Ouzarzarte airport mid afternoon. The vibe was great, 300 UK runners all open to the event and open to each other, it reminded of my younger days when I travelled alot and everyone I met seemed so receptive and open to interaction, which was so refreshing.
The next morning we made our way to the desert, a 5.5 hour bus and 20 mins military truck journey to our campsite and home for the next 9 days or so... It was really sobering to see the campsite and I couldn't quite believe that this was happening! We settled into our tent a Berber tent with no sides.. The wind then rose up that afternoon and even a little bit of rain fell which certainly concerned me and I am sure my fellow tent mates. We sat in stunned silence contemplating the rainy windy week ahead. There was a mini sand storm and thankfully the weather then calmed down - a great introduction to desert life, four seasons in one day almost!
|Sunset On The First Night|
Day 2 in the desert saw us going through the technical checks to show we had the necessary amount of calories, mandatory equipment and the like to do the race. We gave up our large suitcases full of our luxury items and suddenly my world shrank to the size of a 20L Raidlight rucksack, with one spare T shirt for the week, one spare pair of socks and plenty of dehydrated food, nuts and in retrospect not enough sweets! The evening came and we encountered our first speech given by Patrick Bauer. For this first speech he seemed quite restrained and this was another "pinch myself" moment to check that this was actually happening.
Day 1 of running saw us encountering our first 23 miles of desert terrain. Historically the 1st day was shorter and used to help the competitors acclimate to the heat and get used to desert racing. No such luck this time around and we were straight in at the sharp end! I spoke to someone on the way who had said that this was the toughest 1st day he had encountered and he had done it 3 times previously.. I attacked the first 18 miles thinking this was like 23 miles back home on my nice running routes in Jersey.. How wrong was I? I got to the final stretch; a long plain that seemed to go on and on and up and up in equal measure until we hit the top of the climb and there she was.. The finish line! Right out in the middle of a plain and a good couple of miles to get to it. Got there I did though and finished the first day pleased to get it under my belt and having not dug too deep at this point. The only real issue to come of the day was the rucksack I was using, the Raidlight Olmo 20 + 4 as reviewed in these hallowed pages previously was looking like it was not going to be up to the job - more about this later..
Day 2 of running - I awoke this morning feeling rested and recovered which was a great feeling. On todays menu of the weeks buffet of running was 18 miles up 3 Jebels (which are mountains) culminating in the Jebel Al Otfah, described to me by one of my fellow Brits as a "bit of a bugger." I set off at good pace and made good time to the first climb, got in single file with the rest of the runners and started to ascend, and ascend, and ascend.. Every corner seemed to be another climb but the summit came and soon enough we were descending on some beautiful technical rocky trail that soon took us into CP1. I loaded up on water and feeling good I headed off to the next climb a nice sandy, duney effort this time which promptly drained my legs. The views however were amazing and we were negotiating some really gnarly spines up there.. Upon ascent I hit a plain and started the run into CP2 and then the final climb of the day the mighty Jebel al Otfah, a true monster compared to the other climbs and I believe it claimed a few early DNF's from the race due to the severity.
Day 3 of running - I woke this day slightly out of sorts. A windy night had meant the tent collapsed a couple of times and I had not slept so well. Our email messages had been delivered to the tent and an admin cock up had meant that my emails were not there. I watched everyone reading their messages nearly in tears as I thought no one had emailed me! Luckily ten mins later someone from another tent came and gave me my messages they had been delivered to their tent by mistake. This set the tone for my day and although the 3rd day was primarily flat the heat was starting to rise and I was quite mindful of the 48 mile long day following this day. Flat didnt mean easy terrain however, 23 miles of salt plains and sandy sections with the odd climb, little wind and rising temperatures. I set out at a good clip to start with but upon hitting the salt lakes after CP1 I started to feel the last few days in my legs.. I soldiered on and started to engage a run/walk strategy as I didnt want to dig too deep before the 48 miler the following day. I encountered the flat plains again, the like of which seemed to become my nemesis over the week, I found the long flat distance difficult as they seemed to go on and on and distance became very distorted so what seemed like a short distance away never seemed to get closer which played havoc with my mindset particularly on this day.. I got to the finish nonetheless and set about recovering and getting my head right for the big day tomorrow.
Day 4 of running - The big one!! I made the call based on the previous days performance that to set out conservatively was going to be the right tactic for this day. I think the previous day had rattled me a bit and I was not willing to risk the chance of not completing the long day. I cant really describe the feeling of having 48 miles ahead of you having already 64 miles the 3 days previously. I really tried to focus on breaking down the distance into checkpoints and maintaining a brisk pace, which seemed to work ok. In 7 hours my tent mate Gordon and I had hit the half way mark and had endured temperatures of upto 54 degrees Celsius which didn't seem so hot at the time. Mid way through the afternoon we were lucky enough to see the top 50 come through, an awesome experience and the closest I got to Mohamed Al Hansal the eventual overall winner all week!! As the sun went down the cooler climes came and I felt inspired to run. I covered 12 miles in some manic hyperactive fit whilst grinning manically and gurning like a raver at Spike Island. I think the culmination of extreme heat, lots of salt tablets, too many sugary snacks and way too much thrash metal on my ipod took its toll, I lost the plot and remember seeing our photographer Kirsten after checkpoint 4 and proclaiming that I "felt amazing!!" I didnt feel so amazing about and hour and a half later when I needed to go to the loo and was promptly sick at the same time.. Good memories that. I made it to the next check point which was the last one and I had to sleep off the nausea. I was resigned to sleeping through the night and resuming my odyssey the following morning, however a trio of scouse lads rocked into my tent proceeded to talk very loud and awake me from my slumber. I hooked up with these guys and made the last 10km deathmarch back to the finish with them on a perpetual incline and a magic finish line that never actually seemed to get any closer.. I eventually finished this day at 3:30am a broken, shadow of the confident Paul that set out on day one..
Day 5 - Rest Day. After getting in at 3:30am from the long day I woke at 5:30am to the sun shining in my face and it already feeling quite warm. This was the rest day and we had been promised at 4:30pm we would receive a can of Coca Cola. I counted down the hours til that little beauty came and savoured every last mouthful of it.. The rest of the day we hung out ate dehdrated meals, fantasised about proper food, compared war stories about the long day and waited for some of our other tent mates to arrive back. It was a very hot day and being in the tent was quite tough as it is black and seemed to attract the heat.. (not sure why?) It did cool down by the evening though and it was time to bury the trauma of the long day and start to look ahead to the last stage - The marathon stage.
Day 6 of running - marathon day! This was the day that we had all been looking forward to the last proper stage of this years race. It was 26 miles and the heat had risen even more so. I decided to go out hard on this stage as I wanted to try and right the loss of time on the long day - basically a death or glory strategy with high risk or high reward. I am sure you can guess what happened next? I ran like a gazelle across the Sahara desert making mince meat of those dunes, skipping gaily through the best that North Africa had to throw at me...... For 6 miles I did anyway! I got to CP1 and took on water and was feeling uncharacteristically thirsty. I necked the bottle threw some more over me and nonchalantly hit the road to the second check point. It was around mid way through this section that the proverbial wheels started to fall off and I realised I was horrendously dehydrated (perhaps the fact that I hadn't wee'd for nearly 2 days wasnt enough of a giveaway? Call me crazy!!??) and I was caked in salt which is a dead give away. I started to drink the water I had to try and undo the damage caused and promptly ran out of water with about a mile and a half to CP2. This was the first time this had happened and being so thirsty was a little scary. I toughed it out though got to the CP and took all the water on offer which by this point was luke warm!! After making it through this CP we hit a dune section and I was deteriorating quicky, vision was going blurry and I just couldnt seem to find respite from the sun. I slowed to a shuffle and traipsed through the dunes a sad forlorn figure determined to make it to the end and to fight out whatever way I had to to get there. I found every hill the biggest challenge and as well as feeling dehydrated I was nauseous which meant I was running low on energy. I finally made it to the last checkpoint and took 20 minutes to get my act together. I managed to get some jelly beans off a very kind person which seemed to perk me up and fortify me for the last leg of the journey. Along the way I met a great American guy Russell who was struggling as much as me and we walked the last 10km together. We got over the finish line and I received my medal and hug from Patrick Bauer. I must say that he truly engaged me when I spoke to him, that day he gave out 1000 medals and hugs and I bet every person who crossed that line would say the same.
|The main man and I!|
I must say that the race was amazing and anyone thinking of doing it should grab the opportunity with both hands, its not just about the race; the camaraderie, the opportunity to truly push ones limits, the experience of running in the Sahara and the sense of achievement after having actually gone through all the above make up the whole package.
I would dearly like to thank everyone who messaged me during the MDS. This alone was a major contributor to my completing the race. It was so tough out there both physically and mentally. I came within sight of my limits many times but I also really enjoyed it at the same time. The people I met out there will hopefully be people I will have in my life for a long long time and this was a big part of the experience for me. My tent mates were awesome and also the other guys I either knew previously or met at various stages of the race.
So what next for me? Well As soon as I crossed the line at the MDS my initial though was "I could have done better.." So I have made tentative enquiries about going back next year to Morocco. I have registered interest for 2015 as well. Prior to the finish there was no way I was going back but the race has a magical quality. I am also on the waiting list for The Spine Race which is billed as "Britains most brutal race" which takes in approx 260 miles across the Pennine Way in January. I am really conscious of getting another challenge on the cards as I want to maintain momentum and to be honest the MDS has redoubled my love for running! I will be doing Round the Rock here in Jersey on Aug 3rd and I will be doing my first 100 miler across the Cotswolds in September. So lots going on, the adventure has really only just began I feel..
|My Welcome Home Committee!|
I really want to document the kit list and what worked well for me and what didn't, I will have a crack at this over this weekend. I intend to sleep and eat and sleep and eat a bit more this weekend.
I have put together a short video of my experiences in Morocco (click on movie below), I feel it gives a good taste of what we went through out there. Enjoy!